Nellie Bly was only 23 years old when, against all odds, she earned a job at Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The New York World. Nellie had spent 10 days undercover in Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum, proving that women could be successful, intrepid journalists, not just confined to the fashion and society pages. In an active career that spanned three decades she was an outspoken advocate for many causes, including equal opportunities and pay for women in the workplace.
Early life of Nellie Bly
Nellie was born Elizabeth Cochran, in 1864, in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. When she was six years old her father died, leaving her mother, Elizabeth, and her siblings in some financial difficulties.
Her mother remarried but the marriage was not happy and financial troubles limited Elizabeth’s educational opportunities. She was living at home with her mother in 1885 when a series of articles in the Pittsburgh Dispatch annoyed her so much she wrote a letter to the editor.
The articles, discussing a ‘women’s sphere’ and sympathising with fathers with unmarried daughters on their hands, was intended to provoke. Elizabeth’s spirited answer got her a job on the Dispatch and the chance to set forth her own view – that girls were every bit as smart as boys, and in many cases even smarter.
All girls lacked, she insisted, was opportunity.
Ten Days in a Madhouse
By 1887, Elizabeth, given the pseudonym, Nellie Bly by the Pittsburg Dispatch, was ready for bigger things and she tried to get a job on a New York newspaper. Down to her last cents, she talked her way into the office of the editor of the New York World, John Cockerill, and present her story ideas.
None of her story ideas were accepted, but a week later the paper’s owner, Pulitzer, told Nellie that if she could get herself committed to the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and report on conditions, she would have the job she wanted.
The next morning Nellie set to work and, despite much personal danger and uncertainty, she got the scoop the paper was looking for. Her lengthy expose of the ten days she spent in the asylum made Nellie an overnight sensation. She had her own by-line in the newspaper and her story was syndicated across the country and beyond.
Around the world in 72 Days
After her asylum expose, Nellie Bly kept her name in the headlines with a range of undercover investigations – from posing as a woman trying to get a job as a servant, to learning to be a ballerina.
In 1889 she took on another major adventure for the New York World – a solo trip, circumnavigating the globe, turning Jules Verne’s fictional Around the World in Eighty Days trip into a reality. She left New York in November and travelled by steamship and railroad across Europe and Asia before arriving back in San Francisco.
In total, she took 72 days to circle back to New York City, travelling entirely alone and with only one bag of hand luggage.
Life beyond the New York World
Nellie Bly abruptly left the New York World in 1890, although she would return to the journalism several times in the years that followed, reporting on and interviewing important figures of the day, including politicians, suffragettes and notorious criminals.
She also wrote a novel, The Mystery of Central Park, and married a millionaire.
After her husband’s death Nellie took over as head of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.
In World War I, she reported from Austria, and from 1919 until her death in 1922, she ran an advice and opinion column, as well as an informal adoption agency from her suite in the McAlpin Hotel.
Nellie Bly’s Legacy
Outspoken, determined, brave and kind, Nellie Bly changed the face of journalism in the late nineteenth century. She believed that “energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” Nellie Bly, pioneering journalist #herstory Click To Tweet
Her life was characterised by hard work, tenacity and a belief that she could do anything a man could, at least as well, if not better. Although not always right – she sided with the Austrian’s in World War I and didn’t believe that mothers should work when they had children to look after – her self-belief and personal bravery are unparalleled.